Contador and his Tinkoff team lost 52 seconds in the opening team time trial to stage winners Sky. The following day, when the Vuelta delivered a 30% final climb from its menu, he paid again. Froome, Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) rode away with 28 seconds on the Mirador de Ézaro.
“Of course, I can’t lose anything more,” Contador said when the Vuelta reached Lugo at the end of stage five.
“The differences are great, but there is still much to race in this Vuelta and I’m still in the fight.”
Contador added that he was thankful to avoid the crashes, one sent rival Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) home with a broken collarbone.
Darwin Atapuma (BMC) leads the race. Contador now sits 13th overall at 1-20 minutes behind Froome.
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Sports director Sean Yates must come up with a plan if 33-year-old ‘El Pistolero’ is to have a chance to fire away towards a Vuelta fourth title.
“It said not an ideal position to be in,” Yates told Cycling Weekly. “He lost more than we’d hoped to lose in the team time trial. We thought maybe 30 seconds but he lost more. It’s not that we did anything wrong but we just didn’t go fast enough. The guys were at their limit.”
While Froome rode to win a third Tour de France title in July, Contador returned home to Madrid’s outskirts after crashes ruled him out. Doctors reported he suffered “multiple contusions, a hamstring injury, and bruises on the left shoulder and the deltoid right thigh.” He returned to race the Vuelta a Burgos prior to starting the Vuelta on Saturday.
“Yes, he’s fine. He feels fine, he’s confident,” Yates added of Contador’s return. “On the steep finish there he lost contact with the leaders and that was the first hard effort for him. He had only done the Vuelta a Burgos so it was not ideal.
“Time is accumulating now. We have a couple more days before the next hard finishes. At least we want to have status quo until then and then we are going to see about Alberto changing things.
“He has high hopes but it would be a lot nicer to have one minute in hand rather than trying to gain time. We know in the history of grand tours recently, to pull back that amount of time is difficult, but it’s not possible. We saw in the Giro and on other occasions that it can happen.”